Paparazzi (2004)

These guys making a living with a lens, they step over the line sometimes.
— Producer Mel Gibson, “Making of Paparazzi

I’m going to destroy your life and eat your soul and I can’t wait to do it.
— Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore), Paparazzi

“I originally met with Mel to discuss this project, and we both wanted to make an old-style action thriller.” As first time director and erstwhile Hollywood hair stylist Paul Abascal manages it in Paparazzi, “old-style” goes like this: clearly defined rights and wrongs, simplistic characterizations, and brief bits of tension-building, followed by blow-out violence passing for resolution.

At the same time, in his DVD commentary for his roundly panned film, Abascal sounds like a careful guy, attentive to details and just plain glad to have the chance to explain what he was thinking when, for instance, the evil paparazzi start taking photos of movie star Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser) and his family in a car wreck. Abascal notes that the sound design here is sharp, that he asked his guy to come up with a sound that resembled “sucking,” as the photographers are here like “insects sucking the life out of their victims.” It’s a pretty good idea, and it indicates that the sheer badness of this film is less a function of such technical niceties than its overwhelming silliness.

This last might be summarized by Bo’s declaration to his court-appointed shrink (Jordan Baker), some time before the car accident, by way of explaining why he punched out paparazzo Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore), that is, he showed up at Bo’s son Zach’s (Blake Bryan) ball game, taking pictures and generally acting out. Bo sees this as a plain case of overstepping: “You don’t mess with a man’s family,” he growls at the lady doctor. Grrrr.

On one level, Bo’s only living out the fantasy he embodies on screen, as an action here in films with titles like Adrenaline Force (think: Lethal Weapon). A ruggedly independent sort from Montana (as his GMC SUV’s license plates announce), he doesn’t anticipate the paparazzi’s utter tetchiness. Here, their self-appointed mission in life is to harass, abuse, exploit, and ultimately destroy their wealthy, elitist targets; as one photographer insists, “We are the last hunters.” Abascal sees their dreadful behavior as both typical and outrageous. “In case you’re wondering,” he laughs while watching Rex indulge in a particularly rude outburst, “in this movie, the paparazzi are very sleazy guys.” This is a point he makes repeatedly, much like the movie does. As they pursue Bo leaving the hospital where Zach lies unconscious (death’s door and all that), Abascal observes, “That’s very much the way the paparazzi would react in a situation like this. They’re out there just tormenting you, hoping you’ll use poor judgment and do or say something wrong that they can capitalize on.”

Indeed, Bo’s efforts to curtail access to his private life only enrage Rex, who in turn enlists his buddies in the harassment project. This involves not only the shooting of adorable Zach (at the movie premiere that opens Paparazzi, he asks daddy, “Do you know all these people?”), but also Bo’s mostly sensible wife Abby (Robin Tunney, whom Abascal describes as being “beautiful in an accessible way, I really believed them as a couple from Montana”). For his part, Bo believes (you know because he pontificates a lot) that he’s fair enough game, but Zach needs to be protected — you never know what sorts of lunatics lurk in dark corners.

Bo and Rex’s dick-size competition escalates quickly following the punch at Zach’s soccer game. Bo doesn’t exactly take his anger management therapy seriously. But his increasing obsession with retribution is okay because relentless Rex and his scurvy pals — Wendell (Daniel Baldwin), Leonard (Tom Hollander), and Kevin (Devin Gage) — deserve all kinds of maltreatment. Wendell says, “The public wants raw and real, and that’s what we give ’em.” They’re not only egotistical and disgusting (they don’t shave much, apparently don’t bathe, and tend to sit around telling one another how terrific and misunderstood they all are), but they also don’t have much in the way of lives outside their jobs. This is supposedly in contrast to Bo, who pretends he has a private life, apart from his stardom. In fact, the movie only obscures such boundaries. Bo’s all about the seepage.

And so, his desire for payback intensifies in response to threats and intrusions by the villains. As sweet, dull Abby sits at home poolside or by the open window, medicating herself into something approximating oblivion, and leaving herself wide open for long-lensed pictures. The car crash also brings in the cops — or rather, one cop, an L.A. detective named Burton (typecast Dennis Farina) — but it hardly changes the essential smackdown dynamic between Rex and Bo. The cops teeter at the story’s edges, finding clues but otherwise serving no useful purpose, unless you count being two steps behind Bo’s violent vengeance scheme as supporting the not-so-crucial plot point that he’s intelligent.

Though Abascal and his buddy Mel reportedly conceived the film as an action thriller, the action is increasingly bizarre. Bo arranges for paparazzi punishment by particularly energetic means, including one “apparent suicide by cop,” that is, planting a gun on one of his adversaries so that he pulls it out and incites a barrage of police gunfire. (On this point, the DVD includes the nine minute documentary, “The Stunts of Paparazzi,” in case you want to see them broken down.)

Credited to Forrest Smith, the script soon turns all kinds of meta, in the sense that Bo the action star who likes to do his own stunts on the set of Adrenaline Force 2 becomes the action star of his own action movie life (even as Abascal shows up on the film-within-a-film set, directing Adrenaline Force 2). Littered with cameos by stars (Vince Vaughn, “funniest guy on the planet” Chris Rock, Matthew McConaughey, and Gibson, who plays another anger management patient), the movie never achieves a clever distance from its own excess. Bo takes himself very seriously and the movie, while happy to indulge in stereotypes (Kevin rides a motorcycle and wears leather, Wendell’s house is filled with neon outlines of sexy ladies and other porn-shop paraphernalia, Rex lives on a boat, filthy and outfitted with the latest spy gizmos), is finally more distraught and angry than witty.